South Korea’s Godzilla
Tokyo finally gets a day off.
Aiken, Keith. “Yongary, Monster from the Deep on MGM DVD.” SciFi Japan. N.p., 27 Aug. 2010. Web. 25 May 2017.
Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010. Print.
Ragone, August. “Riddle of ‘Yongary, the Great Monster’! Could Toei Possess Original Korean Elements?” The Good, the Bad, and Godzilla. N.p., 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 14 June 2017.
Ryfle, Steve and Song-ho Kim. Audio commentary. Yongary, Kino Lorber Inc., 2015.
Tsutsui, William M. Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound,
He pulls the spitting high tension wires down.
The Blue Öyster Cult might have said, “go go… Korea.”
On this episode of Deja View: the story of a monster with “Seoul.”
The early 1960s were part of the Golden Age of South Korean cinema. But by mid-decade censorship was tightening as the country struggled under a military dictatorship. So in 1966 director Ki-duk Kim, respected for his occasionally subversive social issues films, was suddenly looking for a new genre to tackle—one that was more politically palatable.
He found inspiration in the international success and appeal of Japan’s recent giant monster—or “kaiju”—cycle, which had begun with Toho Studios’ “Godzilla” in 1954. And so he set out to create a city-toppling behemoth for his own country.
He chose for his beast the name “Yongary,” a portmanteau of “yong,” for “dragon;” and “Pulgasari,” a legendary beast who would one day get his own film. For the rest, he decided to borrow liberally from the Big G. Just not Godzilla…
In fact, by the mid-sixties, Toho’s once-unstoppable Godzilla was hemorrhaging ticket sales. Thanks to competition from television and other studios, plus the loss of overseas partners, Godzilla films could no longer justify their large budgets in the face of ever-diminishing returns. It seemed like the end for the kaiju movie.
But in 1965, Daiei Studios surprised everyone with “Gamera,” a monster flick costing pennies on the dollar compared to Godzilla and aimed squarely at kids. Starring a giant turtle who’s fond of children, the splashy, colorful Gamera films valued spectacle over polish. And the first film was so popular, it spawned a sequel a year for six straight years. The series’ success and minimal budgets made it the ideal template for “Yongary”—from its visuals to its story.
Thus Yongary, like Gamera, is awakened by a nuclear bomb from a foreign power, breathes flames, eats fire from oil refineries, and forges a connection with the child hero—after a fashion. The film’s original-language ending even implies that Yongary is not killed, as it seems, but is captured alive and shipped off in a rocket to another planet, just as Gamera was.
Now using the bones of “Gamera’s” story was one thing, but emulating its special effects was another. Suitmation and miniature-heavy films had never been attempted in South Korea. They didn’t have the expertise. But Kim’s solution was straightforward. He wanted a movie like “Gamera”… so why not just hire the people who made “Gamera”?
Partnering with Japan’s Toei Studios, the future home of Super Sentai, Ki-duk Kim brought over several of the special effects team behind Daiei’s “colossal chelonian” to help create the miniatures. Technician Masao Yagi, who created Gamera’s suit, oversaw the construction of Yongary himself.
All of this was just on the border of illegal. The South Korean government had banned all Japanese cultural products following the Japanese occupation of Korea. And yet not only was Kim cloning a fundamentally Japanese movie genre, but also hiring Japanese technicians to work on it. Even when making a kiddie film, the man couldn’t help being subversive.
And although one could hardly call “Yongary” a social issues film, it’s not without political substance. At least one critic has suggested that, just as “Godzilla” conjures images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb, Yongary’s destruction and the accompanying evacuation recall echoes of the Korean War. Yongary even first appears at precisely the spot where the war ended, symbolically resuming the fight.
Critics Steve Ryfle and William Tsutsui also note that Yongary cathartically destroys remnants of Japanese colonialism, like the former capitol building, yet mercifully and conspicuously spares Korean historical landmarks.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that kaiju movies were often made by highly respected and deliberate directors. Through their monsters, they consciously rendered their nation’s particular fears and fantasies on celluloid as apocalyptic visions of destruction. So in spite of Yongary’s familiar appearance, he’s no mere rip-off. He’s a cultural ambassador!
Just don’t invite him to any UN summits.
Yongary would rise again in 1999 in a remake of sorts by longtime fan Hyung-rae Shim. Updating the monster with a new coat of digital paint, the film was just as much a cash-in on the previous year’s American “Godzilla.”
But that’s a “tail” for another time.